Prettily set between cliffs and a river estuary, the 15,000-strong town of WHAKATANE, 65km east of Te Puke, sprawls across flat farmland around the last convulsions of the Whakatane River. It has had a turbulent history but is now a relatively tranquil service town with a couple of cultural attractions, and walks along the spine of hills above the town and to the viewpoint at Kohi Point.
It also makes a great jumping-off point for sunbathing at Ohope Beach, swimming with dolphins, visits to the bird sanctuary of Whale Island and cruises to volcanic White Island, which billows plumes of steam into the sky.
The area has had more than its fair share of dramatic events. The Maori word Whakatane (“to act as a man”) originated when the women of the Mataatua canoe were left aboard while the men went ashore; the canoe began to drift out to sea, but touching the paddles was tapu for women. Undeterred, Wairaka, the teenage daughter of a chief, led the women in paddling back to shore, shouting Ka Whakatane Au i Ah au (“I will deport myself as a man”); a statue at Whakatane Heads commemorates her heroic act.
Apart from a brief sortie by Cook, the first Europeans were flax traders in the early 1800s. In March 1865, missionary Carl Völkner was killed at Opotiki and a government agent, James Falloon, arrived to investigate. Supporters of a fanatical Maori sect, the Hau Hau, attacked Falloon’s vessel, killing him and his crew. In response, the government declared martial law, and by the end of the year a large part of the Bay of Plenty had been confiscated and Whakatane was a military settlement. Te Kooti chose Whakatane as his target for a full-scale attack in 1869 before being driven back into the hills of Urewera.